Recently I engaged in a conversation with a new friend that temporarily focused on the question of why climbers climb. At first I thought that her question had an obvious answer and didn’t require much explanation. But as I started to verbalize my response I realized that my friend didn’t climb, nor had she expressed any interest to do so. Well that just about took all the obvious explanations away – I couldn’t just preach to the choir on this one.
Two weeks earlier I had pulled my exhausted body over the apex of the Nose route on Yosemite’s El Capitan. As I staggered up to the closest tree I found my partner sprawled out in the shade and snoring loudly. We had just completed a thirty some-odd hour ascent of the nation’s most well know big wall and this wasn’t the top-out experience that I had expected. I woke my partner, we bumped fists and got down to sorting the gear for the descent. This was the biggest ascent of my life.
Ever since I first stepped foot in Yosemite Valley I have looked at El Cap with awe, respect and exhilaration. Awe because of the sheer size and massive beauty of the towering face. Respect because of the rich history of rock climbers pitting mind and body against such a challenging, intimidating and yet, alluring objective. And finally, exhilaration because I knew that one day I would climb the thing.
The Nose route was the first line on El Cap to fall to the big wall pioneers of the 1960’s. It ascends the tallest and most prominent aspect right where the face turns a corner, creating the silhouette of a very large nose. The route weaves its way between natural weaknesses – ledges, corners, towers and face cracks – until it finally works out an overhanging lip right at the rim of the canyon. Due to the obvious features and regular traffic on the route, many a climber has spent her rest days in El Cap meadow staring up and memorizing each iconic section. I was no exception.
What was up there that I wanted so badly that it made my heart race and kept me up at night? Why climb this wall at all, or any cliff for that matter?
At four in the morning my partner and I started up the Nose by head lamp. At that point all the doubts were gone and it was just go, go, go.By the time the sun was up we were into a rhythm and making good time. Hooting and hollering, joking – we were having good fun on a perfect summer day in the most beautiful place in the world. Only birds and climbers get this view.
By 3 pm we were two-thirds of the way up the wall and looking to be off before dark. But alas, we ran into three other parties bottle-necked under a feature known as the Great Roof. Normally speed parties are given the priority and allowed to pass as soon as possible. However, these guys did not understand the risk we were taking (no bivy gear, no jackets, little water and no real food – only Gu) to make a one day ascent. As it was, they denied us the chance to pass and we spent six helpless hours on a ledge watching them inch their way through the roof.
By the time we made it through the roof ourselves it was fully dark. We climbed another 400 feet or so and called it for the night. We were now forced to share tiny ledges with the very guys we had been cursing for the last half of the day. They gave us a couple of smokes – a poor substitute for a one day ascent – and we shivered our way to dawn. With swollen hands and cramped legs we began the last few pitches of the climb before the light hit the wall.
Despite our forced bivouac, and the lack of sleep for over 24 hours, our spirits soared. We were high on the Captain and the quality of the route was exceeding our expectations. Each feature that we passed revealed a mystery and brought a heightened respect for the climbers that came before us.
All this flashed through my head as I thought of what to say to my new friend. “It’s about adventure and camaraderie. Its about being in good shape and pushing your body and mind to do things you previously thought improbable. Its about beauty and perspective. At the end of the day, it’s all about being in the mountains with your friends and the buzz that comes with accomplishing a daring goal in good form.”